Email marketing playbook for nonprofits

In addition to doing work for the greater good, one of the most crucial tasks for nonprofits is ensuring that the organization keeps getting much-needed help from potential donors, donors and supporters.

Constant communication with your supporters is the key to long-term success. As a nonprofit, you need to tell your story and ensure that your partners know they are an important part of that story.

There's no better way to connect with your supporters than through email.

Email marketing is the most personal form of outreach, which is why it generates a return on investment four times higher than social media, direct mail and even paid search.

In fact, according to M+R Benchmarks' 2018 nonprofit report, email revenue for nonprofits increased by 24% in 2017 and accounted for 28% of all online giving. 

If you are a nonprofit, you probably already know how important an email marketing strategy is to your survival. The goal of this Email Marketing Playbook is to give you the knowledge, skills and new tools to get the most out of your email marketing campaigns.

And we'll share some email marketing tips along the way!

Let’s start will the most important fundamentals of nonprofit marketing.

The more people you can reach with your email campaigns, the greater the effect it'll have on your nonprofit organization's growth. The first step to success is to keep building your subscriber list.

Opt-in forms allow your first-time website visitors and social media followers to leave you their email addresses. These forms are most effective when placed in high visibility areas where you share your values and mission. 

You can grow your list with different kinds of opt-in forms such as:

Embedded forms 

These can be placed anywhere on your website and give visitors an easy way to sign up for your email newsletters. Signup forms should include an incentive, i.e. offering them a chance to stay updated on your nonprofit organization's activity.

Here's an example of an embedded email opt-in form on the Invisible Children website.

nonprofit email list building email opt-in

Pop-up forms 

You can also use pop-up forms to grow your list and they work really well when done right. Their attention-grabbing nature makes them the perfect tool for collecting your email addresses on your website. In fact, we've written a full post about creating and using pop-ups here.

Look at how this pop-up from Partners In Health immediately captures attention with a compelling image and a statement of their mission.

nonprofit email list building pop-up

Combine this with the clear call-to-action (CTA) "JOIN US", and you're on your way to adding new subscribers to your list.

Social media integrations

Your followers on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter already want to hear from you, so why not get them on your email list as well? You can include links to landing pages on your profile pages or embed forms on Facebook.

MailerLite offers a Facebook integration that enables you to include an opt-in form directly on your pages. Otherwise, explore how email marketing and social media work together for good with this guide.

Offline opt-in app

Sometimes the best opportunity for collecting the email addresses of your supporters is at fundraiser events or meetups, especially if your nonprofit doesn't have much of an online presence.

We understand this challenge, which is why we created a email opt-in app for mobile devices such as tablets which makes it easy to collect emails and obtain permission on the go. That way you can grow your email list wherever your supporters are.

The email addresses you collect are then automatically linked to your MailerLite account so there's never any need to export them.

nonprofit email list building offline opt-in

Whether it's online or offline, just make sure your forms are GDPR compliant.

👉 Tip

In addition to opt-in forms, check your CRM or donor management platform to see if you have some of the email addresses of your supporters. You can import them to your email list as long as you have permission to email them.

Interested to learn more about building a supporter and donor email list? We cover how to grow a high-quality email list in this guide.

While maintaining a healthy subscriber list is the lifeblood of your email marketing, the other half of the success equation is to keep them engaged with relevant content.

Building relationships with an email marketing tool is not so different than building relationships in real life. You keep communication open and keep interacting by listening and sharing important information.   

Email marketing works the same way. As a nonprofit, you can nurture the relationship with your subscribers in a variety of ways.

How do you start writing about things that will interest your donors and supporters? We look at this in detail with our guide on crafting email content that people will care about.

Meanwhile, here are a few ideas to get you started:

Thank you emails

Sometimes all you really need to do is show appreciation. Let your supporters know how much their continued support means to your nonprofit organization.

Be My Eyes uses this email to thank their supporters for joining their cause and even uses the opportunity to get them to help by spreading the word on social media.

nonprofit email marketing thank you email example

Share what you’re doing in blog posts and articles

People want to know that their support is not in vain. They want to hear from you about what you’ve done and what you plan to do. Continually send them updates about the work you're doing and why it matters.

Simons Foundation knows the importance of educating their supporters. In this email, they share a series of blog posts that educate their subscribers on topics their nonprofit organization is focused on.

nonprofit email example

Case studies on how their support has helped

Sometimes your supporters might forget that they're actually helping real human beings with their contributions, which is why it's important to remind them with stories that show how much good they've done.

Notice how this email from Charity Water uses the image and name of a person they've helped and even continues with an engaging story that explains how a woman’s life was made better because of supporters’ contributions.

nonprofit email example case studies

Share your nonprofit organization's milestones and goals

Make it easy for your subscribers to care about the work you’re doing together by sharing your goals and milestones with them. Show them that your nonprofit organization is made up of real people all working towards a shared mission.

Just Giving does exactly this in the email below, complete with a picture of their team having fun and more information about what they're trying to achieve together.

nonprofit email marketing example

One of the best parts of email marketing software is that you can nurture your relationships with subscribers automatically by setting up simple email marketing automation, saving you time for other crucial tasks.

This is one of the points that sets it apart from other digital marketing channels such as social media and search advertising.

For example, each subscriber can receive emails at different phases of their support. Newer supporters need to hear different stories than the people who have been with you for years.

👉 Tip

Don’t send out mass emails to all your supporters. Create a welcome series of emails using autoresponders that help introduce your supporters to your mission and nurture them based on their understanding of the nonprofit organization.

One of the features that allow email marketing platforms to deliver such great returns is that you can achieve a level of personalization no other channel can come close to.

In fact, personalized emails have higher open and click-through rates than non-personalized emails.

But keep in mind that personalization goes beyond just adding a subscriber’s name in the subject line. Personalization also includes sending highly targeted content to the right people.

Your subscribers are different, so the emails you send them should also be different.

This is where segmentation comes in. Segmentation in email marketing means grouping together subscribers who share similar traits so you can deliver more relevant messages to them.

Nonprofit segmentation

For example, if some of your supporters are millennials you might choose to send them a different email than you would your older supporters.

The more you can make your email campaigns match your audience, the better they'll perform. To properly segment your email list you'll need data on your subscribers, which you can get from your CMS, donor management platform or even from your opt-in forms.

👉 Tip

Segmentation doesn’t need to be complicated. For nonprofits, start out using general segments such as

  • Subscribers who haven't donated
  • Individual donors
  • Corporate sponsors

You can have great content to send your supporters, but it’s worthless if your subscribers don’t open or read your emails.

Sending an email doesn't guarantee it'll be opened, read or even clicked. Which is why knowing a few email design guidelines can help you maximize your email’s impact.

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Put extra thought into your subject line

It's safe to say that one of the most crucial parts of your email is your subject line, yet many people make the mistake of writing something quick to get the email sent out.

Your subject line should immediately capture the interest of your subscribers while clearly setting up expectations of what’s in the email.

Want to read more on how to write the best email subject lines to boost open rates? We cover this in detail with this Ultimate guide.

Start by writing out what the email is about, highlighting the main benefits. Then, try these techniques to spice it up:

  1. Personalize it: Add names, segment by geography or add other types of personal information that will catch your subscriber’s eye. 
Personalized subject line example

2. Incite curiosity: Sometimes it's best to add just a bit of mystery. Ask a question or leave something to the imagination.

Incite curiosity subject line example

3. Add urgency: Make it time sensitive so people will be motivated to open it right away.

add urgency subject line
Here are a few examples of email subject lines from nonprofits:
  • Patagonia - Volunteer your skills for our planet
  • WE - It’s not too late to give
  • Charity Water - This #GivingTuesday, make history with us!
  • UNICEF - Water is opportunity
  • American Red Cross - Give. It’s never been easier.

Once you've written a good subject line, you now need to make sure that the body of your email clearly conveys what you want your readers to know.

Make the email easy to read

Most people scan your email before actually reading it. If they see that it is relevant to them, they will invest more time. This is where writing strong headlines come in.

The best headlines are easy to understand and state what readers will get from reading the email. Don’t get too creative or clever.

Patagonia uses a very prominent headline in this email that's easy to understand, attention-grabbing and also tells readers the purpose of the email.

nonprofit email marketing best practice

Break up the text

No one wants to read dense paragraphs. Break up your emails with lots of white spacing. You can do this by increasing line spacing, adding bullet points and using subheadings.  

Make your CTA prominent

Your call-to-action is the main purpose of your email. It's what lets you convert the attention you've already captured into meaningful action.

For your CTA to work well it has to be visible—meaning it should be large and should also contrast with the rest of your email. It should also be simple to execute.

Learn more about how to create a CTA that works in another Ultimate guide.

Look at the prominent CTA in this email from the American Red Cross. Notice how they made the CTA clear and convenient using the words "Schedule Now"—meaning it’s more likely to be clicked.

nonprofit email marketing best practice 2

Use captivating imagery

We learn better with visuals than with words. Adding images to your email can be a powerful way to make them more engaging.

Not sure how or where to start with your newsletter design? We've got you covered in our guide on how to design emails people will read.

Charity Water makes great use of imagery in this online fundraising email, clearly showing the joy online donations bring to real people.

nonprofit email marketing best practice 3

How your email looks definitely matters. Luckily you don't have to be a design guru to create great-looking emails like these. If you use MailerLite, you already have access to tons of well-designed email templates you can use for your fundraising campaigns. Or you can create your own and save them in your personal gallery.  

👉 Tip

Instead of hoping people will click through to read your content, add the important details to your email so more people will hear what you have to say. Don’t be afraid to add more content to the email. Just be sure to break it up in a way that is easy to read.

You can't improve what you don't measure. Imagine your email campaign as a funnel made up of different stages. For a standard email campaign your funnel metrics would consist of:

  • Opt-in rate
  • Deliverability
  • Open rate
  • Click-through rate
email marketing funnel

Once you start analyzing your campaign data you can pinpoint the parts of the funnel that need help. Start recording your metrics so you can determine your benchmarks. For nonprofits, you can use these industry benchmarks.

  • Open rates: 27.56%
  • Click-through rates: 5.13%
  • Unsubscribe rates: 0.18%
👉 Tip

Clean your list every few months to ensure you remove all inactive subscribers. Your open rates, click-throughs and unsubscribe rates will improve dramatically.

We've covered the important nonprofit email marketing best practices and now we'll show you some examples of nonprofit emails that work.

SeedMoney conveys a clear message in their email below. Notice how the image they use also serves as a visual reminder of what their supporters are contributing to. Then they drive their point home with a large CTA directly below the image.

nonprofit email example seed money

In this email, 4th Wheel shows us one of the ways you can nurture your supporters by sending a follow-up email and sharing important milestones with them.

nonprofit email example 4th wheel

Here, SFIAF uses a captivating image, a clear descriptive headline, a short video and a CTA you can't miss to ensure their email is as engaging as it can be.

nonprofit email example san francisco international arts festival

Michigan Scouting knows that educating your supporters about what you do is one of the best ways you can make them care about your mission. They even include videos so their readers can learn more with minimal effort.

nonprofit email example boy scouts of america

This email from Charity Water manages to include vivid imagery, a touching story and a clear CTA. And it couldn't come at a better time than on Father's Day.

nonprofit email example Charity Water

As a nonprofit, email marketing can have a tremendous impact on your organization's growth and fundraising activities. With email, you can more effectively reach your supporters and build strong, long-lasting relationships with them.

Remember that growing your email list is the first step, but just as important is strengthening the relationship between you and your subscribers with personalized email content. Don't forget to analyze your campaigns so you can remove the bottlenecks holding you back.

Does your nonprofit organization currently send email newsletters? If not, we hope this guide motivates you to get started!

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You're in good company

What nonprofit organizations using MailerLite are saying:

We like using Mailerlite for our marketing and communications to our Scouting families. The ease of the system and robust features, as well as cost, make it a great program for non-profits.

We have been switching between mailing platforms for a while before we found Mailerlite. When we did that, it stuck! It simply has the most user-friendly interface to create your emails. Thank you for helping us find partners all around the world!

Mailerlite has helped us promote our events with ease. It's definitely the cheapest way to spread the news to those interested in our activities. Plus, the design features are really wide; thus, you can release your full creativity while creating content!

After working with email marketing services with bigger names and bigger monthly costs for many years, SeedMoney made the switch to Mailerlite in 2017 and never looked back. We appreciate Mailerlite's many user-friendly features and its amazingly responsive customer service. Our funders really appreciate Mailerlite's competitive pricing. Switching to Mailerlite, means that we can spend more of our donors' money on planting healthy food gardens and less on administration.